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The City Of The Living God

July 2024
35min read

From a long-obscure life of Cortés, written by his own secretary, comes a narrative of the incredible splendors of Moctezuma’s Axtec capital

To that small group of Spaniards who early in November, 1519, first glimpsed the city of Mexico (or Tenochtitlán, as the Indians also called it), the sight must have been unforgettable. “It is like the enchantments they tell of in the legend of Amadis!” one exclaimed. “Are not the things we see a dream?” Here was no scattering of primitive native huts but a magnificent city of stone rising from an island in a lake. It was as if the newcomers had suddenly found themselves transported to the Age of the Pharaohs—for such was the level which the Aztec Indian culture had attained. Indeed, the city of Moctezuma, a man revered as a god by his own people, matched in splendor anything Europe could offer. Today it seems incredible that a force of perhaps four hundred men could overthrow a civilization so advanced and so apparently powerful. But numbers in this case are meaningless, for Moctezuma and his wide-ranging Aztec empire had encountered one of the most daring and resourceful captains of history, Hernàn Cortés. He was a man whom the Indians regarded as a god in his own right—until, too late, they discovered that his motives were all too human. The following account is taken from the classic but little-known life of Cortés written by Francisco López de Gómara in 1552. Gómara was eminently qualified for the task, for he served as Cortés chaplain and secretary from 1541 until the conquistador’s death in 1547. Surprisingly, though the book has long been a source for historians, it has had but one English translation—and that a much-mutilated version which appeared in 1578. This modern edition is the work of Lesley Byrd Simpson, Professor Emeritus of Spanish at the University of California; under the title Cortés: The Life of the Conqueror by His Secretary , it will soon be published by the University of California Press.

I XTAPALAPA IS CONNECTED WITH M EXICO by two leagues of a very wide causeway, wide enough to accommodate eight horses abreast, and as straight as if drawn with a ruler. The gates of Mexico could be discerned by one with good eyesight. Along its length are Mexicalcingo, of about 4,000 houses, all built over the water; Coyoacán, of 6,000; and Churubusco, of 5,000. These cities are adorned with many temples, each with its tower. …

Cortés, with his 400 companions and 6,000 Indian friends from the pacified towns, advanced along this causeway, marching with great difficulty because of the pressure of the crowds that came out to see them. As he drew near to the city he came to the junction of another causeway which was protected by a large stone bastion, two fathoms high, with towers at the two ends, between them a crenelated gallery and two gates, very strong. Here some 4,000 gentlemen of the court were waiting to receive him, richly dressed after their fashion, all in the same style. Upon his approach each of them touched the earth with his right hand, kissed it, bowed, and passed on in the same order in which he had come. This took an hour and was something to see. The causeway continued beyond the battlement. Before it reached the street it was interrupted by a wooden drawbridge ten paces across, under which the water flowed from one lake to the other.

Moctezuma came as far as this bridge to greet Cortés. He walked under a pallium of gold and green feathers, strung about with silver hangings, and carried by four gentlemen. He was supported on the arms of his nephews, the great princes Cuitlahuac and Cacama. All three were dressed alike, save that Moctezuma wore golden shoes set with precious stones, which were really only sandals held on by straps like those of the ancients. Servants walked ahead of them two by two, laying down and removing mantles, lest Moctezuma should tread on the ground. Two hundred lords came next, as if in a procession, all barefoot, but wearing a richer livery than the 3,000 of the first escort. Moctezuma kept to the middle of the street and the rest followed him, hugging the walls, their eyes downcast, for it would have been an act of great irreverence to gaze upon his face.

Cortés dismounted and approached Moctezuma to embrace him in the Spanish fashion, but was prevented by those who were supporting him, for it was a sin to touch him. Even so, the two men saluted each other, and Cortés threw about Moctezuma’s neck a necklace of pearls, diamonds, and other gems made of glass. Moctezuma stepped forward with one of his nephews, and ordered the other to lead Cortés by the hand behind him. As they set off, the men in livery came up one by one to speak to Cortés and felicitate him upon his arrival; and then, touching the earth with their hands, they passed on and took their places as before. If all the citizens had saluted him as they wished, it would have taken the whole day; but, since the king had gone on ahead, they all turned their faces to the wall and did not dare approach Cortés.

Moctezuma was pleased with his glass necklace and, being a great prince and unwilling to accept a present without giving a better one in exchange, he at once commanded two necklaces to be brought. From each of them hung eight gold shrimps (which they greatly esteem) as large as snails and an inch long, of perfect workmanship, and he cast it about Cortés’ neck with his own hands, which the astonished Mexicans considered a mark of great favor.

By this time they were approaching the end of the street, which is a third of a league long [a league is about two and a half miles— Ed. ], wide, straight, and very beautiful, lined with houses on both sides; and so many people were crowded at the doors and windows and on the roofs that I know not who was the more amazed, our men at seeing such a multitude of men and women in the city, or they, at the guns, horses, beards, and dress of our men, such as they had never before seen.

The Spaniards then came to a large courtyard in what had been the house of Axayacatl [the ruler of the Aztecs from 1469–79, and the father of Moctezuma— Ed. ], where idols were kept. At the door Moctezuma took Cortés by the hand and led him to a large room, saying: “You are now in your own house. Eat, rest, and enjoy yourself, and I shall return later.”

Such, just as you have heard it, was the reception given Hernân Cortés by Moctezuma, a most powerful king, in his great city of Mexico, on the eighth day of November of the year of Our Lord 1519.


M OCTEZUMA WAS A MAN of middling size, thin, and, like all Indians, of a very dark complexion. He wore his hair long and had no more than six bristles on his chin, black and about an inch long. He was of an amiable though severe disposition, affable, well-spoken, and gracious, which made him respected and feared. Moctezuma means a furious and solemn man. The Mexicans add the suffix tzin to the given names of kings, lords, and women as a mark of courtesy or dignity, as we do with don , the Turks with sultan , and the Moors with mulei ; so they call Moctezuma Moctezumatzin . His people endowed him with such majesty that they would not sit in his presence, or wear shoes, or look him in the face, with the exception of only a few great lords. But he would not permit the Spaniards to remain standing, either because he enjoyed their society, or because of his high regard for them. When he took a notion to dress in the Spanish fashion, he would exchange garments with them. He changed his own four times a day and never wore the same garment twice. His used garments were saved and given as rewards and presents to servants and messengers, or, as a token of favor and privilege, to soldiers who had fought and captured an enemy. The many and beautiful mantles that he sent to Cortés were of such.

Moctezuma was naturally clean and neat; he bathed twice a day. He seldom left his chambers except to eat, and always ate alone, but gravely and abundantly. His table was a cushion or a couple of dyed skins; his chair a bench of four legs, made from one piece, the seat hollowed out, very well carved and painted. His dishes were brought in by four hundred pages, gentlemen’s sons, who served them all at once in his dining hall. Moctezuma would enter and look them over, pointing to those he liked, whereupon they would be set on braziers of live coals, to keep them warm and preserve their flavor. He would seldom touch other dishes, unless it was a well-prepared one recommended by his majordomo.

Before he sat down to eat, as many as twenty of his wives would enter, the most beautiful or shapely, or those serving their weekly turn, who very humbly brought him his food, after which he sat down. Then the steward would enter and draw a wooden screen to keep the people from crowding in, and only the steward could serve him, for the pages were not permitted to approach the table or utter a word; nor could any of those present speak while their master was eating, save only his jester, or someone who had a question to ask; and all waited on him barefoot. His drinking was not done with such pomp and ceremony.

Some six old men, with whom Moctezuma would share portions of the dishes he liked, were always at the king’s side, although somewhat withdrawn. They accepted the food reverently and ate it even more respectfully, not looking him in the face—which was the greatest mark of humility they could show him. During his meals he would listen to the music of pipes, flutes, conches, bone fifes, drums, and other instruments of the kind, for they have no better ones; nor can they sing, I say, because they do not know how, and their voices are bad besides.

Always present at his meals were dwarfs, hunchbacks, cripples, and so on, all for his entertainment and amusement, and these, along with the jesters and mountebanks, were given the leavings to eat at one end of the hall. Whatever else was left over was eaten by the three thousand men of the regular guard, who stayed in the courtyards and square—which is why it is said that three thousand dishes were always served, and three thousand pitchers of the beverage they drink, and that the cellar and pantry were never closed. It was a wonderful thing to see what they contained. Everything obtainable in the market was cooked and served daily without fail. There was, as we shall relate elsewhere, an infinite variety, in addition to what was brought in by hunters, tenants, and tributaries.

The plates, bowls, cups, pitchers, and the rest of the service were of very good pottery, as good as that of Spain, and were never used for more than one of the king’s meals. He also had a large number of gold and silver vessels, which he seldom used, because to use them more than once would seem a low thing to do. Some have said that Moctezuma cooked and ate babies, but the only human flesh he ate was that of sacrificed men, and this not commonly. When the table linen was removed, the men and women, who were still standing, would approach to offer him water for his hands, which they did with equal respect, and then retired to their own chambers to eat with the others, as they all did, save only the gentlemen and pages who were on duty.

While Moctezuma was still seated and the table had been taken away and the people departed, the merchants entered, barefoot, for all removed their shoes upon entering the palace, save only great lords such as those of Texcoco and Tacuba, and a few of his kinsmen and friends. All came very poorly dressed: if they were lords or great men, and it was cold, they wore old blankets, coarse and tattered, over their fine new mantles. They bowed three times, but did not look him in the face, and spoke humbly, always facing him. He answered them with great dignity, in a low voice and few words. He did not always speak or answer them, whereupon they would leave, walking backward.

Then Moctezuma would amuse himself by listening to music and ballads, or to his jesters, as he was very fond of doing, or by watching certain jugglers who use their feet as ours do their hands. They hold between their feet a log as big as a girder, round, even, and smooth, which they toss into the air and catch, spinning it a couple of thousand times, so cleverly and quickly that the eye can hardly follow it. Besides this, they perform other tricks and comical acts with astonishing skill and art. … They also perform grotesque dances, in which three men mount one above the other, resting upon the shoulders of the bottom man, while the top man does extraordinary things …

The Ball Game

A T OTHER TIMES M OCTEZUMA went to the tlachtli , or ball court. The ball itself is called ullamalixtli , which is made of the gum of the ulli [hule] , a tree of the hot country. This tree, when slashed, oozes thick white drops that soon harden, and are gathered, mixed, and treated. The gum turns as black as pitch, but does not stain. It is rolled into balls which, although heavy and hard to the hand, bounce and jump very well, better than our inflated ones. The game is not played for points, but only for the final victory, which goes to the side that knocks the ball against the opponents’ wall, or over it. The players may hit the ball with any part of the body they please, although certain strokes [ e.g. , with the hands] are penalized by loss of the ball. Hitting it with the hips or thighs is the most approved play, for which reason they protect those parts with leather shields. The game lasts as long as the ball is kept bouncing, and it bounces for a long time. They play for stakes, wagering, say, a load of cotton mantles, more or less, according to the means of the players. They also wager articles of gold and featherwork, and at times even put up their own bodies. …

Moctezuma’s Women

M OCTEZUMA HAD MANY HOUSES in and out of Mexico, some for display and recreation, some for dwellings. I shall not describe them all, for it would take too long. The one where he had his permanent residence was called Tecpan, that is to say, palace. It had twenty doors opening on the square and public streets, and three large courtyards, in one of which was a beautiful fountain. It had many halls and a hundred rooms 25 to 30 feet square, and a hundred baths. It was constructed without nails, but very solidly. The walls were of stone, marble, jasper, porphyry, black stone shot with veins of ruby red, white stone, and a translucent stone [alabaster]; the ceilings, of wood, well finished and carved to represent cedars, palms, cypresses, pines, and other trees. The chambers were painted; the floors, covered with mats; the drapes, of cotton, rabbit fur, and feathers; the beds, poor and uncomfortable, being merely blankets laid over mats or straw, or mats alone.

Few men slept in these houses, but there were a thousand women—some say three thousand, counting the ladies and their servants and slaves. Of the ladies and their daughters, who were very numerous, Moctezuma took for himself those whose looks he liked; the others he gave to his servants for wives, or to other gentlemen and lords. Thus it happened, they say, that he had a hundred and fifty women with child at one time, who, persuaded by the devil, took exercises and medicines to get rid of the babies; or perhaps [they did so] because their children could not inherit. These women were guarded by many old ones, who would not permit a man even to look at them, for the king would have nothing but chastity in his palace.

The coat of arms above the palace doors (where the banners of Moctezuma and his ancestors were hung) was an eagle in combat with a tiger, its claws extended as if to capture its prey. Some say it is a griffin and not an eagle, for there are griffins in the mountains of Tehuacân that depopulated the valley of Ahucatlán by consuming the people. They base their argument on the fact that these mountains are named Cuitlachtépetl, from cuitlachtli , which is to say, a griffin resembling a lion. I do not now believe that there are such, for no Spaniard has seen them. …

The House of Feathers

M OCTEZUMA HAD ANOTHER HOUSE with many fine apartments and several galleries resting upon pillars of jasper (these cut from a single piece), opening upon a spacious garden, in which there were ten or more ponds, some of salt water for sea fowl, others of sweet water for birds of the rivers and lakes. The ponds were frequently emptied and filled, to keep the feathers clean. So many birds lived there that they overflowed the place, and they were of such different plumages and kinds that the Spaniards were astonished, for most of them they had never known or seen before.

Each species of bird was fed the things it had eaten in its wild state: if herbs, it was given herbs; if grain, maize; if beans, these and other seeds; if fish, fish, of which the ordinary ration was ten arrobas [one arroba equals twenty-five pounds— Ed. ] a day, caught in the lakes of Mexico. They were even fed flies and other vermin, if such was their diet. Three hundred persons were assigned to take care of the birds: some cleaned the ponds; others caught fish for them; others fed them; others deloused them; others guarded the eggs; others threw out the brooders; and still others had the most important duty of plucking them. Of the feathers, rich mantles, tapestries, shields, plumes, flyflaps, and many other things were made, adorned with gold and silver, of exquisite workmanship.

House of the Hunting Birds

M OCTEZUMA HAD ANOTHER HOUSE with very large rooms and apartments which was called the bird house, not because there were more birds in it than in the first, but because they were larger, or, perhaps, being birds of prey, they were held to be better and nobler. In the many upper rooms dwelt men, women, and children who were white in body and hair from birth, and who were considered unusual to the point of being almost miraculous, so seldom did they occur. Dwarfs, hunchbacks, cripples, and monsters were also kept there in large numbers for the king’s amusement. It is said even that they were broken and made crooked in babyhood as if for the glory of the king. Each of these monsters had an apartment to himself.

In the lower rooms were many cages of stout timbers: in some, lions were kept; in others, tigers; in others, lynxes; in still others, wolves. In short, there was no kind of four-footed beast that was not represented, and all for the purpose of Moctezuma’s being able to boast that, however fierce they might be, he [dared] to keep them in his house. They were fed turkeys, deer, dogs, and game. In other rooms, in great eathenware jars, pots, and vessels … filled with water or earth, reptiles were kept, such as boa constrictors ( muslos ), vipers, crocodiles (which they call caimanes , that is to say, water lizards), lizards of other kinds, and such-like vermin, as well as land and water snakes, fierce and poisonous, and ugly enough to frighten the beholder.

In another apartment and in the courtyard, in cages with round perches, were kept all manner of birds of prey, such as lanners, hawks, kites, vultures, goshawks, nine or ten varieties of falcons, and many kinds of eagles, among which were some fifty a great deal larger than our red-tails. At one feeding each of them would eat a turkey of the country, which is larger than our peacock. There were many birds of each kind, and each kind had its own cage. They consumed some 500 turkeys every day. They had three hundred servants to wait on them, not counting the hunters, who were numberless. Many of these birds were unknown to the Spaniards, but it was said they were all good hunting birds, as was manifest by their aspect, size, talons, and the prey they caught. The snakes and their mates were given the blood of men killed in sacrifice, to suck and lick, and some even say they were fed on the flesh, which the lizards devoured with great gusto. The Spaniards did not witness this, but they did see the ground all encrusted with blood, as in a slaughterhouse, which stank horribly and quaked if a stick was thrust into it.

An amazing number of men were in and out of this house, caring for the birds, beasts, and serpents. The diversity of the birds, the ferocity of the beasts, and the serpents swelling with poisonous fury delighted our Spaniards, who, however, did not enjoy their frightful hissing, the hideous roaring of the lions, the howling of the wolves, the screams of the tigers and lynxes, and the yelps of the other animals, owing to hunger or perhaps to the thought that they were caged and could not give vent to their fury. And truly, at night the place was a picture of hell and abode of the devil; and so it was, in fact, for in one of the rooms, 150 feet long by 50 wide, was a chapel thickly plated with gold and silver, all set with pearls and precious stones: agates, cornelians, emeralds, rubies, topazes, and the like. Here Moctezuma often came in the night to pray, and the devil appeared and gave him advice on petitions and reauests.

Moctezuma had another building, for the storage of grain and feathers and mantles brought in as rents and tributes. It was also something to see. Above its doors was the coat of arms, or device, of the rabbit. It housed the majordomos, treasurers, accountants, secretaries, and all those employed in the management of the royal estate. All these buildings without exception had their chapels and oratories of the devil, who was prayed to for the protection of their contents. For these reasons the buildings were very large and accommodated many people. …

Moctezuma’s Gardens

B ESIDES THOSE JUST MENTIONED , Moctezuma had many pleasure houses with delightful gardens, some of medicinal and aromatic herbs, others of flowers, roses, and sweet-smelling trees in infinite numbers. It was something to make one praise the Creator to see such variety, coolness, and perfume, and the skill and delicacy with which a thousand different figures had been fashioned out of leaves and flowers. Moctezuma did not permit any vegetables or fruits to be raised in these gardens, saying it was not fitting for kings to operate farms for profit in his pleasure spots, and that it was the duty of slaves or merchants to raise such fruits. Nevertheless, and despite what he said, he did own orchards, but at a distance, which he seldom visited. Outside of Mexico he also possessed great houses in the woods, surrounded by water, with springs, rivers, fishponds, rabbit warrens, breeding grounds, and crags and rocks where stags and deer, hares, foxes, wolves, and other such animals roamed free, in the hunting of which the Mexican gentlemen exercised themselves much and often. So many and so great were the houses of Moctezuma that they were equalled by those of few kings.

Moctezuma’s Court and Bodyguard

M OCTEZUMA HAD DAILY A COMPANY of 600 gentlemen and lords to act as his bodyguard, each with three or four armed servants to wait on him, some even with as many as twenty or more, according to their rank and wealth; so altogether they numbered 3,000 (some say many more) in the palace guard. All of them were fed with the leftovers from the king’s table and his rations. The servants did not retire to their quarters until he had finished eating, and then not until night. The guard was so numerous that it quite filled the courtyards, squares, and streets [of the palace]. It could be that, to impress the Spaniards, they put on this guard and show of power, and that ordinarily it was smaller. The truth is, however, that all the lords under Mexican rule, who … numbered thirty, each with 100,000 vassals, resided a part of each year in Mexico at the court of the great lord Moctezuma, out of obligation and gratitude, and when they returned to their own lands and dominions, they did so with the permission and at the choice of the king. Even so, they had to leave behind a son or brother as insurance against their rebellion, and for this reason they all maintained houses in Mexico-Tenochtitlán. Such, then, were the estate and household of Moctezuma, and such was his generous and noble court.

Tributes of the King of Mexico

T HERE WAS NO ONE in all his dominions that did not pay some tribute to the lord of Mexico: the lords contributing their personal service; the peasants (called macehuales ), their persons and goods. This they did in two ways: either as renters or as owners; the owners gave a third of their yearly produce, to wit: dogs, fowl, birds of plumage, rabbits, gold, silver, precious stones, salt, wax and honey, mantles, featherwork, cotton, cacao, maize, chili, sweet potatoes, broad beans, kidney beans, and all kinds of fruits, greenstuff, and cereals, by which they live. The renters paid by the month or the year whatever they must, and because it was a great deal they were all called slaves. These, even though they had nothing to eat but eggs, yet thought the king was doing them a favor. I have heard that tributes were even assessed against their foodstuffs, and that everything else was taken from them, because of which they dressed very poorly. In fine, they possessed a single pot for cooking herbs, a stone or two for grinding maize, and a mat to sleep on. The renters and owners not only paid this tribute, but served with their persons whenever the great lord wished, although he did not call them up except for war and hunting.

Such was the ascendancy that the kings of Mexico had over them that they were silent even when their sons and daughters were taken from them for any purpose. This is why some say that, of the three children of every farmer or non-farmer, one was given for sacrifice. This is manifestly false, for in that case there would not have been a man left in the whole country, nor would it have been as populous as it was. Besides, the lords ate only the sacrificial victims, who were rarely free men, but slaves and prisoners of war. Still, they were cruel butchers, and killed during the year many men and women, and some children, not, however, as many as some have said. …

All these tributes were brought to Mexico on the backs of men or in canoes, at least enough to maintain the household of Moctezuma. The other tributes were used to feed the soldiers, or were exchanged for gold, silver, precious stones, jewels, and other valuables, which the kings esteemed and kept in their apartments and treasuries. In Mexico, as I have said, there were storehouses and buildings in which the grain was kept, with a majordomo and assistants to receive it, distribute it in an orderly manner, and keep the records in picture books. Each town had its tribute collector, something like a constable, who carried a staff of authority and a fan. He listed the goods and numbers of people in the towns and provinces of his district, and brought the accounting to Mexico. If any collector made an error or cheated, he died for it, and even the members of his family would be penalized as kinsmen of a traitor to the king. Farmers failing to pay their tribute were arrested. If they were poor because of sickness, they were allowed to defer payment; if it was because of laziness, they were forced to pay. In short, if they did not fulfill their obligation and pay on the appointed days, they might be taken as slaves and sold for their debts and tributes, or even sacrificed. …

Moctezuma had a hundred large cities, with their provinces, from which he received the rents, tributes, homage, and vassalage I have spoken of. In some of them he maintained fortresses, garrisons, and treasurers to receive the services and taxes they paid him. His domain extended from the [Gulf to the Pacific], and two hundred leagues inland. It is true, to be sure, that in the midst of it were several provinces and large towns, such as Tlaxcala, Michoacán, Panuco, and Tehuantepec, which were his enemies and paid him no tributes or services, but the trade he carried on with them when he pleased was worth a great deal to him. There were likewise many lords and kings, such as those of Texcoco and Tacuba, who owed him nothing but obedience and homage; they were of his own lineage and were the ones to whom the kings of Mexico gave their daughters in marriage.


A T THE TIME OF C ORTÉS’ COMING , Mexico was a city of sixty thousand houses. Those of the king and lords and courtiers were large and fine; those of the others, small and miserable, without doors, without windows, but, however small they might be, seldom containing fewer than two, three, or ten inhabitants, so that the city had an infinitely large population. The main part of the city was surrounded by water. Its thoroughfares were of three kinds, all wide and splendid: one of water alone, with a great many bridges; others of earth alone; the third kind was of earth and water; I mean, they were half on land, where men could walk, and half in the water, where canoes could circulate. The waterways were naturally clean, and the streets frequently swept.

Almost all the houses had two doors, one opening on the causeway, the other on the water, where they kept their canoes for transport. The city was built upon the water, but the water was not used for drinking. Drinking water was brought in from a spring in the hill of Chapultepec, a league distant, at the foot of which were two large statues carved in the rock, of Moctezuma and (it is said) his father Axayacatl, armed with lance and shield. The water was conveyed in two pipes, each supplying an ox [a large volume] of water. When one of the pipes became foul, they used the other until it too got foul. The city was served by this spring, which also supplied water for the ponds and fountains of many houses. The water was also sold from canoes, for which certain taxes were levied.

The city was divided into two districts: one called Tlatelolco, which means island; the other, Mexico, where Moctezuma resided, which means source. It was the nobler district, for it was larger and the residence of the king. The city was known by this name, although its proper and ancient one is Tenochtitlan, which means stony fruit. …

Mexico-Tenochtitlán is completely surrounded by water, standing as it does in the lake. It can be approached by only three causeways: one, about half a league long, entering from the west; another from the north, about a league long. There is no causeway from the east, and one must approach by boat. To the south is the third causeway, the one by which Cortés and his companions entered, as I have said. The lake upon which Mexico is situated, although it seems to be one, is really two, very different from each other, for one is saline, bitter, and stinking, and has no fish in it, while the other is of sweet water and does have fish, although they are small. The salt lake rises and falls, and has currents caused by the winds. The fresh-water lake is higher, so that the good water flows into the bad, and not the other way around, as some have thought; it flows through some six or seven large channels cut in the causeway that separates them. These channels are crossed by some very fine wooden bridges. The salt lake is five leagues wide and eight or ten long, and is more than fifteen leagues in circumference. The fresh-water lake is about the same size, so that the whole measures more than thirty leagues roundabout. On its shores are more than fifty towns, many of them of five thousand houses, some of ten thousand, and one, Texcoco, as large as Mexico. The water that collects in this depression comes from a ring of mountains that can be seen from the city. It picks up its salt from the saline earth through which it flows. Its salinity is caused by the soil and the place, and not by something else, as many think. A great deal of salt is gathered from the lake, and is the source of a large trade.

Upon these lakes float some two hundred thousand small boats, called by the natives acalli , which is to say, water-houses, from atl , water, and calli , house, the word being composed from these two terms. The Spaniards called them canoas , a word to which they had become used in the language of Cuba and Santo Domingo. They are shaped somewhat like a trough, cut out of one piece, large or small, depending upon the size of the log. I am understating rather than exaggerating the number of these acalli , for some affirm that in Mexico alone there are commonly some fifty thousand of them, used for bringing in provisions and transporting people. So the canals are covered with them to a great distance beyond the city, especially on market days.

The Markets of Mexico

T HE MARKET PLACE IS CALLED a tianquiztli . Each district and parish has its square for the exchange of merchandise, Mexico and Tlatelolco, the largest districts, having vast ones, especially the latter, where markets are held on most weekdays. … The market place of Mexico is wide and long, and surrounded on all sides by an arcade; so large is it, indeed, that it will hold seventy thousand or even a hundred thousand people, who go about buying and selling, for it is, so to speak, the capital of the whole country, to which people come, not only from the vicinity, but from farther off. …

Each trade and each kind of merchandise has its own place reserved for it, which no one else can take or occupy—which shows no little regard for public order—and because such a multitude of people and quantity of goods cannot be accommodated in the great square, the goods are spread out over the nearest streets, especially the more bulky materials, such as stone, lumber, lime, bricks, adobes, and all building materials, both rough and finished. [In the market proper] many kinds of mats are to be found, both fine and coarse; pottery of different clays and glazes, all very pretty, and every kind of vessel, from great jars to saltcellars; charcoal, firewood, and faggots; deerskins, raw or tanned, with hair or without, stained in many colors, for shoes, bucklers, shields, jackets, and coverings for wooden armor. Besides all this, there are skins of other animals: birds with their feathers still in place, dried and stuffed with straw, large and small, an astonishing thing to see because of their colors and strangeness.

The most valuable goods are salt and cotton mantles, these being white, black, and of every color, some large, some small; some designed for bed coverings, others for capes, still others for drapes, drawers, shirts, headdresses, tablecloths, handkerchiefs, and many other things. There are also mantles of maguey fiber, palm fiber, and rabbit fur, which are good, esteemed, and worn, although those made of feathers are better. The most picturesque thing in the market is the birds: some used for food, others for their feathers, and still others for hunting. They are so many that they cannot be counted, and of such different species that I cannot name them: tame birds, birds of prey, birds of the air, land, and water. The most beautiful things in the market are the gold and featherwork, in which they make replicas of everything in every color.

The craft of the highest rank and greatest skill is that of the silversmiths. … They can cast a parrot that moves its tongue, head, and wings; a monkey that moves its feet and head, and holds a distaff in its hands, so naturally that it seems to be spinning, or an apple that it appears to be eating. All this was much admired by our men, for our silversmiths have not such skill. …

The kinds of foodstuffs sold are numberless. They will eat virtually anything that lives: snakes without head or tail; little barkless dogs, castrated and fattened; moles, dormice, mice, worms, lice; and they even eat earth which they gather with fine nets, at certain times of the year, from the surface of the lake. It is a kind of scum, neither plant nor soil, but something resembling ooze, which solidifies. It is very plentiful and a great deal of it is gathered; it is spread out on floors, like salt, and there it dries and hardens. It is made into cakes resembling bricks, which are not only sold in the market [of Mexico] but are shipped to others far outside the city. It is eaten as we eat cheese; it has a somewhat salty taste and, taken with chilmole , is delicious. It is said that so many birds, attracted by the food, come to the lake in winter that they quite often cover it over in some places. …

The Temple of Mexico

T HE TEMPLE WAS CALLED a teocalli , which is to say, the house of god, the word being composed of teotl , god, and calli , a house, a very proper word if theirs had been the true God. … In its parishes and districts Mexico had many temples, with towers, surmounted by chapels and altars, where the idols and images of their gods were kept. These chapels were also used as sepulchers by the lords who owned them, the rest of the people being buried in the earth roundabout and in the courtyards. Since all the temples were of the same form, or almost, it will suffice to describe the principal one. …

The temple site was a square, measuring a crossbow shot to the side. Its stone enclosure had four gates, three of them opening on the main streets, which were a continuation of the causeways I have described. The fourth one did not open on a causeway, but on a very good street. Within this enclosure was a structure of earth and heavy stones, square, like the enclosure itself, measuring fifty fathoms to the side. As it rose from the ground, it was interrupted by great terraces, one above the other. The higher it went, the narrower became the terraces, until it resembled a pyramid of Egypt, save that it did not end in a point, but in a square platform eight or ten fathoms wide. The west side had no terraces, but a stairway leading to the top, each step of which was a good span in height. Altogether there were 113 or 114 of the steps, which, being many and high and made of handsome stone, gave the structure an imposing appearance. To see the priests climbing and descending them during some ceremony, or carrying a man up to be sacrificed, was a spectacle to behold.

At the summit were two very large altars, separated from each other, and set so close to the edge of the platform that there was hardly enough room to allow a man to pass easily behind them. One of these altars was at the right, the other at the left. They were not more than five spans in height, and their stone walls were painted with ugly and horrible figures. Each altar had a very pretty chapel built of carved wood, and each had three lofts, one placed above the other, quite high, of carved panelling. The chapels stood well above the pyramid and, viewed from a distance, gave it the appearance of a tall and handsome tower. From it one had a fine view of the city and the lake with all its towns, the most beautiful sight in the world. This was the spectacle that Moctezuma showed Cortés and the Spaniards when he took them to the top of the temple. Between the head of the stairs and the altars was a small square, but more than wide enough for the priests to celebrate their rites without crowding.

All the people prayed with their faces toward the rising sun, which is why the great temples are so placed. In each of the altars was a very large idol. Apart from the towers formed by the chapels on this pyramid, there were forty or more others, large and small, raised upon the lesser teocallis which surrounded the great one. These, although of the same design, did not face the east, but other parts of the sky, to differentiate them from the great temple. Some were larger than the others, and each was dedicated to a different god, one to the god of air, called Quetzalcoatl, whose temple was round, for the air encompasses the sky. Its entrance was through a door carved in the form of a serpent’s mouth, diabolically painted, with fangs and teeth exposed, which frightened those who entered, especially the Christians, to whom it looked like the mouth of hell. … All these temples had adjoining houses for the service of their priests and particular gods.

At each entrance of the great temple there was a large hall containing sizable chambers on its two floors. They were filled with arms, for the temples of every town were community houses and served as defenses and fortresses, which is why munitions and stores were kept in them. There were also three other halls of equal height, with flat roofs, tall and large, their walls of painted stones, the ceiling joists fancifully carved; and within, many chapels or chambers with very small doors, very dark inside, where an infinite number of idols were kept, great and small, made of many kinds of metals and materials. All of them were black with blood, for they were smeared over and sprayed with it whenever a man was sacrificed. They stank horribly, in spite of which the priests entered the chapels daily and, when they were preparing to kill and sacrifice a man, would allow no one else to enter, unless it was some great personage. These ministers of the devil had a large pond, fed by a pipe leading from the principal drinking fountain, where they washed off the blood of the sacrifices, from themselves and their robes. This pond was also used for the kitchens and the poultry. The rest of the great square was empty and open, and was used for the raising of birds, for herb gardens, sweet-smelling trees, rose bushes, and flowers for the altars.

Such, just as I have described it, was the great temple of Mexico, so vast and so strange, which these deluded men raised to their false gods. It housed continually five thousand people; all slept within it and ate at its expense, for it was very rich, having many towns whose obligation it was to build and maintain it in service.

The Idols of Mexico

T HE GODS OF M EXICO , it was said, numbered two thousand. The most important of them were Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca, whose images stood upon the altars at the summit of the teocalli . They were of stone, of gigantic size, thickness, and height, covered with mother-of-pearl, in which many pearls, precious stones, and gold were set, held in place by a cement made of zacotl , decorated with mosaics representing birds, snakes, animals, fishes, and flowers, done in turquoises, emeralds, chalcedonies, amethysts, and other small stones, which made a very handsome design against the mother-of-pearl. Each of the idols wore about its waist thick snakes of gold, and each wore a necklace of golden hummingbirds, a golden mask with mirror-like eyes, and, at the back, a dead man’s face—all having their meaning and symbolism. The two gods were brothers: Tezcatlipoca, god of plenty, and Huitzilopochtli, god of war, who was worshipped and esteemed above all the others.

Another very large idol stood in the chapel of the said gods which, according to some, was the greatest and best of them. It was made of all the edible and useful seeds found in the country, which were ground and kneaded with the blood of innocent babes and virgins, who had been sacrificed and their hearts offered to the idol as first fruits. The priests and ministers of the temple consecrated the idol with the utmost pomp and ceremony. The people of the whole city and country attended the consecration with incredible rejoicing and devotion, and many of the pious approached the idol after it had been blessed, to touch it with their hands and press into the dough precious stones, small pieces of gold, and other jewels and ornaments taken from their persons. After the ceremony, no layman might touch the idol or enter its chapel, not even the monks, but only the tlamacazque , that is, the priest. They replaced the idol from time to time and broke up the old one, and blessed were they who could obtain a piece of it for a relic and precious memento, especially the soldiers. At the time of the consecration of the idol, a flask of water was also blessed; it was piously guarded at the foot of the altar to sanctify the king when he was crowned, and to bless the captain-general when he was elected during a war, he being given some of it to drink.

The Ossuary

O UTSIDE THE TEMPLE , more than a stone’s throw from the principal gate, was an ossuary built of the skulls of men taken in battle and sacrificed. It was in the form of a theatre, longer than it was wide, of stone and mortar, with its benches, between the stones of which skulls were set, teeth outward. At the ends of the theatre were two towers, built entirely of mortar and skulls, the walls of which, containing, so far as could be seen, no stone or other material, were strangely handsome. In the upper part of the theatre stood seventy or more tall poles, four or five spans apart, into which pegs had been driven from top to bottom. These pegs stood out like studs, and each of them had five skulls impaled on it through the temples. Andrés de Tapia, who described it to me, and Gonzalo de Umbria counted them one day and found them to number 136,000 skulls, including those on the poles and steps. Those in the towers could not be counted. This was a cruel custom, although it had some color of humanity, because it was a reminder of death. Certain persons had the duty of replacing the skulls that fell out, so the number did not diminish.

Moctezuma Is Arrested

H ERNÁN C ORTÉS AND THE S PANIARDS spent six days viewing the city and learning its secrets as well as the notable things we have described. … They were frequently visited by Moctezuma and the gentlemen of his court, as well as others, and were very well provided for, as on the first day. The Indian friends were also looked after, and the horses were fed green alcacer , a fresh grass that grows all the year round, flour, grain, roses, and everything else their masters requested, and were even bedded down in flowers.

Notwithstanding the fact that the Spaniards were so pampered and were so proud at being in such a rich country where they could fill their hands, not all of them were happy or contented, some being afraid and beset with misgivings.

This was especially true of Cortés, who, as their head and chief, had the obligation of watching over and guarding his companions. He was particularly uneasy when he contemplated the situation of Mexico, its size and numbers of people, and when he saw the anxiety of many Spaniards who came to him and told him of the fortress and web in which they were caught, for it seemed to them that not a man could escape whenever Moctezuma should take the notion, or the city should rise. It would only be necessary indeed, for each citizen to throw a stone, or break the bridges of the causeways, or cut off supplies—all of which things the Indians could easily do.

So it was that Cortés, with his anxiety to guard his men, avoid such dangers, and surmount any obstacles in the path of his desires, decided to arrest Moctezuma. … The opportunity, or incident, which furthered his purpose was the death of nine Spaniards killed by Cualpopoca.∗ Besides, he had boldly written the Emperor that he would seize Moctezuma and his empire. …

∗ In one of the coastal towns that had submitted to Cortés, the Indians refused to pay tribute to Moctezuma. When Moctezuma’s tribute-gatherer, Cualpopoca, tried to back his demands with force, fighting broke out. Though Cualpopoca’s men were beaten, several Spaniards—the exact number is undetermined—lost their lives. Apparently Cortés was aware of the incident long before he reached the city of Mexico— Ed.

The next morning certain Spaniards, accompanied by many Indians of Tlaxcala, came to tell Cortés that the people of the city were plotting to kill him and, to ensure their success, to break the bridges over the causeways. At these tidings, true or false, Cortés left half the Spaniards to guard his quarters, posted many others at the street crossings, and told the rest to go to the palace very innocently, in twos and threes, or as they thought best, and tell Moctezuma that he must see him about matters of life and death.

They did so, and Cortés went straight to Moctezuma, concealing his weapons, as did the others. Moctezuma came out to meet him and led him to his reception room. As many as thirty Spaniards entered with him, while the rest remained at the door of the courtyard. Cortés greeted Moctezuma as usual, and then began to jest and banter with him, as he had done before at various times. Moctezuma, who was very easy, giving no thought to what fortune had in store for him, was cheerful and pleased with this discourse. He gave Cortés many gold jewels and one of his daughters, and gave him the daughters of other nobles for the Spaniards. Cortés accepted them to please him, because Moctezuma would have been insulted otherwise; but he told him he was a married man and could not take the girl as his wife, because under Christian law no one was permitted to have more than one, on pain of being dishonored and branded on the forehead. After all this, he showed Moctezuma the letters of Pedro de Ircio [which told of the fight with Cualpopoca and the death of the Spaniards— Ed. ] and had them translated for him. In them Ircio accused Cualpopoca of having killed so many Spaniards, and accused Moctezuma himself of having ordered it done and of having ordered his men to make public that he wished to kill the Spaniards and cut the bridges.

Moctezuma denied both charges, saying it was a lie on the part of his vassals and a very great falsehood that the wicked Cualpopoca had perpetrated against him. To prove to Cortés that this was the truth, in his great rage he called certain of his servants there and then, and ordered them to bring Cualpopoca before him, giving them a jewel from his arm as a seal, carved with the figure of Huitzilopochtli. The messengers left at once, and Cortés said to him: “My lord, it will be necessary for your Highness to come to my apartment and remain there until the messengers return bringing Cualpopoca, to clear up the matter of the killing of my Spaniards. There you will be well treated and served, and will rule, just as you do from here. Be not afflicted, for I shall defend your honor and person as I would my own, or that of my King; and forgive me for this, because I cannot do otherwise. If I should tolerate your conduct, my men here would be vexed with me for not defending and aiding them. And so, order your people not to be angry or make a disturbance, and bear in mind that if any ill befalls us, you will pay for it with your life, for it lies with you whether you will keep silent and not stir up your people.”

Moctezuma was profoundly shaken and said with all gravity: “My person is not such as can be taken prisoner and, even if I should consent to it, my people would not suffer it.” The two spent more then four hours discussing the matter, at the end of which Moctezuma said he would go [with Cortés], because he had to rule and govern. He ordered a room to be well furnished and prepared for him in the house and court of the Spaniards, and went there with Cortés. Many lords, barefoot and weeping, undressed him, put his clothes under their arms, and bore him off in a rich litter. When it was noised about the city that the king was a prisoner in the hands of the Spaniards, it erupted in a great tumult. But Moctezuma comforted those who were weeping, and told the rest to desist, saying that he was not a prisoner, nor was he there against his will, but much to his liking.

Cortés put a captain and a guard over him and changed the guard daily, so that there were always Spaniards to cheer and entertain him. For his part, Moctezuma greatly enjoyed their company, and always gave them something. He was served there by his own people, as in his palace, and by the Spaniards also, who put themselves out to please him, and Cortés himself brought him every kind of gift, begging him at the same time not to feel badly about it, and leaving him free to hear suits, dispatch his affairs, attend to the government of his realms as before, and to speak publicly and privately with all those of his people who wished to see him—which was the bait that caused Moctezuma and his Indians to take the hook.

Never did Greek or Roman, or man of any nation, since kings have existed, do what Cortés did in seizing Moctezuma, a most powerful king, in his own house, a very strong place, surrounded by an infinity of people, while Cortés had only 450 companions.

With Moctezuma their hostage, the Spaniards remained in the Aztec capital for another six months. But Cortés, who had never received official approval from the Crown, suddenly found himself threatened by a rival expedition of Spaniards. Leaving a garrison behind, he hastened to the coast, and forced the newcomers to submit to his leadership. Meanwhile, in the city of Mexico, his men had goaded the Aztecs into an open uprising; Cortés returned to find them barricaded in their quarters at the palace of Axayacatl. When he pushed a reluctant Moctezuma in front of his angry people, they proceeded to stone their onetime god-king and wound him mortally. Cortés now had no choice but to retreat. On the night of June 30, 1520—remembered ever after as la noche triste— his troops fought their way out along the causeway, and only escaped with heavy losses. But by the end of the year, Cortés was back with reinforcements. One by one, the towns surrounding the Aztec capital succumbed; in May, 1521, the actual siege of the city of Mexico began. It lasted three months. On August 13, when the Spaniards finally entered the city, most of it was a smoking ruin. What little was left, they destroyed .

—The Editors

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